The low-key drama, Low Down, is based on the life of Amy-Jo Albany, daughter of the late Joe Albany, an accomplished jazz pianist and drug addict. Ms. Albany produced and co-wrote the screenplay, based on her memoir.
The film, directed by Jeff Priess, who knows jazz and drug addicts from being the cinematographer on the Chet Baker doc, Let’s Get Lost, has Amy-Jo (Elle Fanning) living a hardscrabble life with her dad Joe (John Hawkes) in a flophouse in Los Angeles in 1974. Dad tries to stay clean, and care for his daughter. However, their semblance of a routine is distracted as people ranging from a parole officer, Amy-Jo’s drunk mother Sheila (Lena Headey), Hobbs (Flea, who co-produced), a musician, or junkies (Billy Drago) be-bop in and out of their lives.
At one point, Amy-Jo lives with her grandmother (Glenn Close) because Joe ends up in rehab. Another interesting narrative digression involves Amy-Jo being fascinated by a curious neighbor, Alan (Peter Dinklage). While these episodes are not uninteresting, much of the film depicts Amy-Jo’s painful childhood, with a largely absent father. A scene where Joe sends his daughter off to a movie so he can get laid is intriguing for what it reveals about how she spends her time alone.
Priess uses jazz music to reflect the characters’ moods and mindsets. He peppers his film with lively tunes when Joe and Amy-Jo are happy, and mellow ones when things aren’t great. There is even a scene of Amy-Jo moving the needle off a played out record to underscore how spent Joe and Hobbs are. But such cues fail to give the film any energy, which is frustrating.
For all the strong performances by Hawkes, Fanning, Close, Dinklage and Headey, Low Down never seems to muster any emotions other than sadness and boredom. As Amy-Jo goes to sleep in the bathtub for what is probably not the first time, or Joe commits another selfish/self-destructive act, it’s a familiar cycle. She worships him, he screws up, she forgives him. Every so often they fight. She eventually gains a measure of self-worth after all the abuse.
At the midpoint of Low Down, the story jumps ahead two years, but the film is so lethargic, viewers might think it that passage is happening in real time. At least the last reel includes a riveting meeting between Amy-Jo and her mother in a bar where Sheila talks candidly with her daughter. And there is a telling visual with a drugged up Joe smiling next to his frowning mother on the couch. But Low Down contains too few of these tough and tender moments to be truly emotional.
Low Down opens in Philly area theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and film critic. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Follow him on twitter @garymkramer.